Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute

Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute

 

 

 

 

 

 

Richard North Patterson, author of Silent Witness and No Safe Place

For two reasons, I'm delighted to comment on the 50th anniversary of The Moving Target.

First, Ross Macdonald was, and is, the greatest American mystery novelist. Granted, Hammett revolutionized the form, and Chandler gave it style. But it was Macdonald who imbued the mystery with the qualities of a full-bodied novel: impeccable plotting, a sense of place, a careful delineation of human psychology, and a perfect fusion of story and character, in which the conclusion of a story resonates back to its beginnings.

The mystery is too often a ghetto, filled with wise-cracking middle-aged protagonists, or plots which are more often parlor tricks, meant to divert rather than to deepen our understanding. Macdonald proved that the mystery novel can, at its best, be literature.

Second, without meaning to, Macdonald taught me how to write. Before I read his novels -- and I read them all -- I never imagined writing myself. But Macdonald showed me how: clean sentences, complex characters, a keen use of selective detail, and a strong narrative line. Quite clearly, Macdonald was a planner -- his plots were too coherent, their events too clearly a product of human psychology, not to be thought out. The completeness of his novels, in a curious way, demystified the process -- they suggested that writing was not an outburst of mystical rapture, but the carefully judged exercise of a craft. And so he emboldened me to try.

For my own career, and for hours of pleasant and enrichment, I owe Ross Macdonald a great debt.

 

..............

 

S.J. Rozan, author of No Colder Place and A Bitter Feast

Ross Macdonald showed us that tough guys could be lyrical. His elegant, place-anchored prose makes it clear that no writer has to choose between character and action, on the one hand, and vivid, precise expression, on the other. Macdonald also understood that the family was the root of all emotion, and emotion the root of all crime; that people are complex; and that, though solutions to mysteries can be found, justice is often unobtainable.

 

..............

 

E.C. Ayres, author of Night of the Panther and Lair of the Lizard

Coincidentally, I discovered Ross Macdonald around the same time I did John D. Back then I was a New Yorker, fresh out of college, and had no clue I would ever a) become a mystery writer, b) live in California, or c) live in Florida. Most of the ensuing years have been spent doing one or the other of those things.

My first impressions of California, like most non-natives', were based on the Hollywood media-induced mythologies generated by film, television, and pop music. And prior to personal experience, Ross Macdonald was the first to shatter those illusions and introduce me to a new reality -- that there was something darker happening out there than just surfing and beach parties. I had to go and find out for myself, of course. Raymond Chandler was too ancient and obscure to impact my own 1960s worldview, but Macdonald was right there. I sought out and rediscovered the kinds of people and specific places he wrote about. He understood and reflected the California culture better than anyone before or since, in my view. He was the best.

 

..............

 

Randy Wayne White, author of North of Havana and The Mangrove Coast

Ross Macdonald isn't just a great literate and literary voice, he is a great American voice. He was one of the few, one of the strong who blazed the trail. To follow him, to play a roll, to contribute to the genre even in a small way, is an honor.

 

..............

 

Judith Smith-Levin, author of Do Not Go Gently and The Hoodoo Man

In 1987, I purchased a small bookshop in Carmel, California. It had been basically a full-service bookstore, but I noticed that the inventory was very heavy on mysteries. It was then I decided to turn the shop into Carmel's Mystery Book Store.

To that end, I set about reading practically every book in the shop. I'd always enjoyed mysteries, but I'd never considered myself a mystery buff. I had a customer who was very savvy on the genre, and he recommended Ross Macdonald. The Underground Man was my first Lew Archer, and I was hooked. With my own serial character, Starletta Duvall, about to embark on her third adventure [Green Money], I now recognize just how much I learned from reading Ross Macdonald.

In Lew Archer he gave us a fascinating and entertaining character. Though some of the novels were "classic," they were never "stale." In his final works, Archer is still timely and entertaining, a most important factor in a serial protagonist. When I became a mystery writer, it dawned on me that I was having such a good time reading Ross Macdonald that I didn't realize just how much I was also learning. What an honor to be able to be a part of this tribute to his memory.

..............

 

Max Allan Collins, author of Flying Blind and The Titanic Murders

The reputation of Ross Macdonald has perhaps faded somewhat since his glory days of the 70s, when he was deemed the equal of Hammett and Chandler. I am not one of his acolytes, but I respect his work and, in particular, his almost dogged determination to bring serious subjects to the private eye novel, as well as a literary approach.

I guess I'm with Chandler in finding Macdonald, as a stylist, somewhat strained. And he did seem to keep writing the same book over and over again...though it was a pretty damn good book. There is much to admire in his work, not the least of which is Lew Archer himself. I tended to prefer the earlier Macdonalds, when he and Lew Archer had a more straightforward and overtly tough-guy approach -- Find a Victim is particularly good.

I once wrote Macdonald a fan letter, admitting to him that I was not among his most devoted admirers; but that I had read The Blue Hammer -- one of the rare later Macdonalds that allows Archer to be a flesh-and-blood character and not the "window" the author often referred to him as -- and thought it was one of the best private eye novels I'd ever read. I still do. I wrote Macdonald primarily because The Blue Hammer was the worst-reviewed of his later, bestseller-period novels...sort of the book where the same critics who had put Macdonald on too high a pedestal decided to knock him down a peg or two. I let him know how much I liked his new novel and how full of shit I thought those reviewers were. He responded with a warm note, wryly admitting he'd never received a fan letter quite like it. Unfortunately, I've lost that small piece of history, but the memory stays with me.

..............

 

Walter Satterthwait, author of Accustomed to the Dark and Masquerade

I think of Ross Macdonald as the third member of the Holy Trinity, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler being the first two. Like them, he's one of the people whose work made me want to become a mystery writer; and, like them, he's one of the people against whom I measure my own accomplishments. I always fare badly.

 

..............

 

Les Roberts, author of A Shot in Cleveland and The Best-Kept Secret

Without the Archer books by Ross Macdonald, the hard-boiled private eye novel might have slipped into obscurity after Hammett and Chandler. As it was, he built on their foundation, taking the genre several more clicks past dismissable pulp fiction to serious modern American literature. He often wrote darkly of sins long past and barely remembered, writing "psychological thrillers" before the term was coined.

His specific influence on my own work is that, like my P.I., Milan Jacovich, Archer was a man of unwavering principle, and his refusal to bend frequently cost him dearly. While we knew little of the personal side of Archer, we observed him as lonely, disengaged, and out of the mainstream, which I believe is the proper platform from which a P.I. should function. He was a character in shadow who yet sprang vividly alive on the page, no small feat for any writer to accomplish.

It seems astonishing that The Moving Target is 50 this year. But I'm astonished at how old I am, too -- and both of us feel as if we were written yesterday.

 ..............

 

K.K. Beck, author of We Interrupt This Broadcast and The Revenge of Kali-Ra

I recently came across a faded copy of Newsweek for March 22, 1971. It was squirreled away in a file with some college papers about the history of the detective novel. Inside, there were stories about Ali vs. Frazier, the Black Panthers, the My-Lai massacre, the Jesus People, and Germaine Greer. There were references to riots in Detroit, hurricane Camille, a struggle over cyberspace ("Who owns the microwaves?"), and fisticuffs at a feminist lecture. There is a jokey picture of Spiro Agnew in hippie gear -- headband and buckskins. The magazine reflected a turbulent, divided society. Even the "Life and Leisure" section had an article on a new toy called the Klick-Klack, under the title "Anxiety-Age Toy."

I saved this magazine because the cover story was called "The Art of Murder," and the cover itself featured a portrait of a serene-looking Ross Macdonald in his mid-50s, wearing a fedora. One blue eye is enlarged by a magnifying glass.

I remember how pleased I was when this article came out. I had spent a lot of time as a teenager reading dead (or near-dead) detective novelists from the Golden Age, and had come to love and admire a whole slew of them, from Conan Doyle to Christie to Raymond Chandler. Many of the books I read were out of print, and I bought them at the Seattle Goodwill store on Dearborn Street for 29 cents a piece. But Ross Macdonald was still alive and writing intelligent novels about the way we lived then. I prized his novels for their craft, and their ability to reflect what [G.K.] Chesterton, in an earlier, gaslight-era description of the detective story called "the poetry of modern life." I saw Ross Macdonald as the rightful heir to Chandler long before there had been 30 or 40 other jacket blurbs bestowing this title on others. (The other Macdonald of the period, John D., lacked the requisite elegance and perspicacity of either Chandler or Ross).

I was growing up in a world that seemed to be rocking and reeling. At the time, I was being told in college that by the turn of the century the world would be beset by nuclear war, overpopulation, and famine, and we would have run out of fossil fuels and everything else. Environmentalist Ross Macdonald himself was depicted picketing against oil spills off Santa Barbara, while Lew Archer was quietly and decently looking for runaway adolescents, and acting to bring some moral order to chaos as best he could.

I remember that the Newsweek article cheered me up a lot. It revealed that someone was continuing to work successfully in a genre I loved, and that I wasn't the only one who'd noticed that. It gave me hope that this was something I might even do myself some day. (Eventually, I did. Along with hundreds of others. While I recall doubting that the Mad Max culture of scarcity some of my contemporaries believed in so fervently would come to pass, I know I never anticipated a glut of crime writers carving up the market into lots of slices of varying sizes! Most of us have also been asked to strike the same corny fedora-and-magnifying glass pose that graced the 1971 Newsweek cover.)

Finding that article rekindled the memories of my first nervous aspirations. Now that you have reminded me, I am going to take the copies of The Chill, The Instant Enemy, The Blue Hammer, The Far Side of the Dollar, and The Zebra-Striped Hearse that have been sitting in their now faded dust jackets on my bookshelves for the last 20-some years, and get reacquainted with an old friend who was a helpful and inspiring presence to me when I was young and hopeful.

 ..............

 

Robert Randisi, author of In the Shadow of the Arch and Murder Is the Deal of the Day (with Christine Matthews)

It was 1966 and I went to the movies to see a film called Harper, with Paul Newman. I knew nothing of the content, or the source. I was so caught up in Newman's portrayal of "Lew Harper" that I went out and bought the source material -- The Moving Target, by Ross Macdonald. Once I read the book I was hooked on the P.I. form. I had read Mickey Spillane, and enjoyed him, but Spillane had given me no impetus to write, myself. Ross Mac -- and Paul Newman -- did that.

Macdonald had taken what had started out as a short form -- short stories, short novels -- and moved it into the realm of the full-length novel. There was more here than bullets and babes. There were real people and emotions, power, social commentary, an examination of public and family values. It took many years for The Goodbye Look to make the New York Times Bestseller List, but then so did the last three books in the series.

As a body of work the Lew Archer "canon" has had an undeniable effect on the P.I. form which, during the time since his last book, has become elevated from a sub-genre of the mystery to a genre of its own. The impetus for that rise can, I believe, be traced to Macdonald's success.

One last thing: I spoke with Ross Macdonald shortly before his death. I was asking him for a short story for my first anthology, The Eyes Have It, or, failing that, an introduction. He told me on the phone that he could not commit to either, since he had just had micro brain surgery. I realized, then, how weak his voice sounded. I regret that my only contact with him might have been a painful, regretful for him. After all he'd done for me, he deserved more.

He died shortly thereafter.

 ..............

 

Vincent Zandri, author of Permanence and As Catch Can

I can't imagine Jim Crumley or Michael Connelly -- especially Connelly -- without the literary (I hate that word) influence of Macdonald. Fuck convention. What Macdonald realized was that you can have literature, plot, and action all in the same mix.

 ..............

 

Philip Reed, author of Bird Dog and Low Rider

I read my first Ross Macdonald novel long before I became a California writer, long before I had even visited California. My brother-in-law used to lie in a hammock and read two or three books in an afternoon, tossing the books overboard as he finished them. "Here's a good one," he said as he threw me The Goodbye Look.

The paperback was slim, with small print on yellowing paper. The dialogue was a bit dated, like Chandler and [James M.] Cain, but the emotions were raw and the characters vivid. It was the darkness, though, that drew me in, the growing sense of dread as Lew Archer moved deeper through the layers of deception and lies, all the while carrying his own despair.

Now, years after reading that paperback, I have become a Southern California writer, and I revisit many of the same locations Macdonald described, and I see many of his characters reborn in different clothing. I often think about Macdonald, the man behind the books, writing about a younger California but feeling, even then, that he was living on the edge of the world, a place where the golden sun was a lie of happiness and everyone carried with them a broken dream.

In interviews, I'm often asked which writers have influenced me. That question always makes me think of The Goodbye Look. I can see the small print on brittle paper and I can feel the gathering darkness as I turn the pages. And it's then that I realize how much I owe Ross Macdonald.

 

 

Quotes Still to Come: Stuart Kaminsky, Jeremiah Healy, Janet Dawson, Loren D. Estleman, and many others weigh in on Ross Macdonald's literary contributions. Check back here on Friday, April 23.

 

 

Week 1

Michael Connelly, Sue Grafton, Lawrence Block, and other contemporary novelists sound off on Macdonald's writing and legacy.

Ross Macdonald Quotes

Stuart Kaminsky, Jeremiah Healy, Janet Dawson, Loren D. Estleman, and many others weigh in on Ross Macdonald's literary contributions.